For Christians, Lent is the season in which we remember the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness while dealing with the temptations of the devil. Some Christians give something up for Lent, something that will require tests of willpower that will bring us a small sense of the experience that Jesus had and through that, perhaps a more meaningful experience of faith. Other Christians will add something to their lives, attempting to live a more faithful life of giving. Many Christians will mark the start of the season by having ashes imposed upon their foreheads, a reminder of their mortality and the need for reconciliation with God. Although Lent is an important season for the Church and its members, there’s a significant dimension of Lent that is personal and focused on an individual’s relationship with God and the journey of faith, especially lifting up the ways through which one has faltered in faith.
This year, I’m taking on a different approach to Lent, and encouraging Old South to join me in reflecting in a more corporate way and to consider one of the particular ways through which the Church universal has stumbled and failed, where it has, in many of its expressions, refused to live up to the lessons of Jesus Christ.
For this Lent, I will be spending time—and bringing Old South with me—reflecting on the treatment of women in the Church.
Every weekend, as Christians gather for worship in churches around the globe, most adherents to the faith gather in church’s that do not allow women to be ordained or to be in pastoral leadership. This is not only a problem. It is wrong. The Gospels contain myriad accounts of the witness and ministry of women— Martha of Bethany and her sister Mary; the Samaritan woman at the well; and Mary, the mother of Jesus. These are just a few examples. And, then there’s Mary Magdalene. Without her, we might not have any Christianity at all, as she was the first to the empty tomb on that first Easter morning. She was the first to share the Good News.
I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about the women of the Gospels as I’ve been thinking about the status of women in the Church. I’ve been thinking about the churches and the denominations that allow women to pursue ordination and pastoral leadership. These are the churches—for the most part— that are in steady decline. These are among the churches that are struggling and even closing.
It is hard enough to contemplate the decline of the Church, and its churches— and the tradition that has been my spiritual home for my entire life. But, now I wonder about the witness that is eroding, as those churches and denominations that welcome the ministry of women continue to shrink. What happens when the dominant expression of the faith is made up of denominations and churches that deny the full participation of women in pastoral leadership?
At Old South, we will spend our Lent learning more about the women around Jesus. Of course, we have learned about some of these women, in bits and pieces, in occasional passages here and there in the lectionary— where the lectionary committee is willing to highlight biblical passages that include stories of women. For this season, we will leave the Revised Common Lectionary and will consider the women and only the women, and will focus on the relationships that Jesus had with many women. We will center ourselves on the relationships where Jesus trusted, taught, worked with, and enabled women to be about the holy work of ministry. We will learn more about: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary of Magdala; the Samaritan woman at the well; Martha; Mary of Bethany; and an unnamed woman or two.
There are others we could consider, for the Gospels contain many accounts of women engaged in important and significant work. But Lent is only so long.
I’ve always been grateful that I was able to pursue my call to ministry, and did so quite a long time ago (back in the last century!). I’m also grateful that I had good women who helped to pave that path before me. The Holy Bible that was presented to me when I was in third grade (in 1972), for instance, was signed by then Minister of Christian Education, the Rev. Jacqueline D. Mills. As a young adult, I encountered several ordained women in the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. Except for the Roman Catholic Church (and who knew what their problem was], it never really occurred to me that women would be excluded from pastoral leadership.
For Lent, those of us who gather at Old South in Hallowell, Maine, will take a bit less time reflecting in a personal way on the personal journey of faith. Instead, we’ll consider the women around Jesus and wonder, perhaps, about the possibility that it is in the failure to include women fully in all expressions of the faith that has landed Christianity in the precarious place in which it finds itself. After all, it isn’t just the old Mainline Protestants that are struggling with decline.
In the 14th chapter of Mark, when Jesus knew that his earthly life was in danger, he gathered with his friends. An unnamed woman came along and anointed his head. The men were indignant. But Jesus told them to leave her alone, for she was showing the way of the events that were unfolding. Then Jesus declared, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mark 14:9)
So shall we observe this holy season of Lent.